Rediscovering Neil Simon
Lost in Yonkers
The Wall Street Journal
March 29 2012
Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers," which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 and whose original production ran for 780 performances on Broadway, is being revived for the first time in New York - in a 99-seat off-Broadway house. How are the mighty fallen! But here's the surprise: TACT/The Actors Company Theatre, one of the best small companies in Manhattan, is giving "Lost in Yonkers" a production that will make even confirmed anti-Simonites rethink their position. I've never seen a more emotionally persuasive Simon revival, not even David Cromer's short-lived 2009 Broadway staging of "Brighton Beach Memoirs."
The plot of "Lost in Yonkers" sounds like the premise for a second-rate sitcom: Eddie (Dominic Comperatore) gets into hot water with a loan shark, stows his two boys (Matthew Gumley and Russell Posner) with his gargoyle-like mother (Cynthia Harris) and goofy sister (Finnerty Steeves) and goes on the lam. What makes it work is that Mr. Simon has upped the ante by turning Eddie into a grieving widower, his mother into a loveless monster and his sister into a slightly retarded woman-child with mature sexual urges. The result is a play whose wisecracks float atop a roiling current of anger and despair.
How to balance these seemingly disparate elements? Jenn Thompson, the director, does it by staging "Lost in Yonkers" as though it were a straight-down-the-center family drama. No winks, no nudges, no slapstick: Every scene is played for truth. Yes, you'll laugh -a lot - but never at the expense of believability, and when the characters stop trying to be funny and tell you what they feel, you'll feel it with them.
None of this, of course, would work had Ms. Thompson not assembled an ideal cast. Ms. Steeves, who was so striking in the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's 2007 production of "The Norman Conquests," is no less passionate and potent in "Lost in Yonkers." You can hear the audience holding its collective breath during the climactic speech in which she admits to her mother that she "let boys touch me." But her colleagues shine as brightly, and Ms. Thompson has directed them all with a hand so sure that you could easily mistake them for a permanent ensemble. (A special word of praise to Ms. Harris for playing the mother as a human being, not a cartoon.) In addition, Mr. Simon has allowed Ms. Thompson to make a handful of cuts that help to tighten and desentimentalize "Lost in Yonkers," and I very much hope they will be incorporated into the published version of the script.
Great set, great costumes, great sound design-great everything, in fact. Off-Broadway or not, this is a major revival.